I’ve been on a bit of a losing streak as far as reading materials goes. There have been a few gems, but the majority of books I’ve picked up lately have either been ho-hum or just downright bad.Normally, I try to forget terrible books as quickly as possible, but there IS great benefit to reading, even finishing, less than stellar stories – they teach you what NOT to do. Whatever talent I have as a writers is the culmination of years and years and years of reading stories, novels, and poems. This isn’t news to anyone who has written long enough. You wanna write well, read well. Simple as that. Reading is the only thing that develops our ear for sound in language. But that reading SHOULD include a few stinkers along the way, just as precautionary tales.
I won’t name names – a lady doesn’t kiss and tell – but I thought I would try to distill these mediocre literary offerings into some useful lessons, for myself and anyone else who might identify.
1. Dialogue Can Make or Break the Story: Try this little bit of brilliance –
“Then, I imagine by the time the sun rises, I’ll have decided whether or not to set you free to run home and tell your master that he picked the wrong man to trifle with this time.”
Some might ask, “What’s wrong with that? Sounds fine to me.” And, I will admit it’s not the worst I’ve heard. But this is not a good piece of dialogue, not no way, not no how. For starters, WAY too long and becomes clunky and awkward. For another, it’s just meh. I mean the character is trying to convey how big and bad he is but just comes off sounding… meh.
Let’s face it, dialogue is an essential component to character development and plot movement. You have to have/develop an ear for effective dialogue. Some writers just have a natural affinity for this, can dash off brilliant dialogue without breaking a sweat. The rest of us really have to work and refine our ear so we can hear the false notes and bits of fakery that will kill our characters’ credibility.
2. Every Character Needs to Contribute to the End Game: Each time a character is introduced into the narrative, he/she must have some sort of function that propels the plot. Otherwise, why is he/she included in the story? As much as writers (myself included) like to say our characters are real people, they aren’t. They exist for the sole purpose of serving the story, making it rich and complex and moving it forward. If they aren’t pulling their weight, cut ’em.
3. Every Scene Needs to be a Step Towards the Climax: Along with #2 I wish the writers I have been reading lately would tighten their scenes. The most recent stinker had a scene between a brother and sister that, when I finished it made me frown with disgust because I realized, pretty quickly, the entire scene had little or nothing to do with larger narrative. That means, I wasted my time reading filler. I HATE FILLER. Maybe I am too strident, but if a scene does not in some way lead to the book’s climax/resolution, does not include some vital piece of information, why is it there?
4. Loose Strings are Annoying as HELL: I have read this complaint in many reviews of a certain blockbuster series that has spawned a certain television show with lots and lots of nudity and violence. I think you know which one I’m talking about. I have not read these books. Tried but just couldn’t get into them. Even so, I have read dozens of reviews about characters left floating in the ether, plot threads never resolved. I HAVE personally read books where this has happened. Bottom line, if you introduce a plot thread, tie it up by the end. If you’re doing a series, fine, the thread can linger for a while. But by the end of the series, that thread better be tight and tucked away – for good or bad. Nothing says laziness like a loose plot thread.
5. Don’t Fucking Overuse Fucking Expletives: You’ve fucking seen this. Don’t tell me you fucking haven’t. Where every other damn word is a motherfucking expletive that declares how fucking bitching your asshole main character(s) is/are. The shitty thing about using fucking expletives is they are like motherfucking land mines – use too fucking many and you fucking blow your damn story to fucking shit. That’s all the punkass reader can fucking focus on is those asshole expletives you keep fucking pumping into your fucking story. Get a fucking vocabulary, douche.
6. Characters Should not be Schizophrenic (Unless they are actually Schizophrenic): One of the books I read recently featured a male hero who began the story as a perfect golden boy. Seriously, he was like syrup. Then, as soon as he had sex with the heroine, he turned into a moody, petulant whiner who treated the heroine like crap – even called her a whore at one point. The author never provided me with a good reason for this change. Nor did she manage to reinstate this hero in my good graces, though the heroine was falling all over herself to get back into his arms. Barf! Bottom line, you begin a story with a certain character who has a certain personality. While character development tempers that personality, the essential soul of the character remains the same. Even through tremendous upheaval, tragedy, and loss the character’s soul remains the same. If it doesn’t, you better give a heaven and hell kind of reason that makes sense and will pacify the reader’s incredulity. Totally doable, but many authors, like the one I read recently just seem lazy about it. All this doesn’t really apply if your character is actually SUPPOSED to have schizophrenia – though each voice in the character’s head should be consistent.
7. Information Dumps Make Me Sleepy and Ham-fisted Exposition Insults Me: If you’ve made any study of classic literature (Dickens, Austen etc.) you’ll know that our taboo against info dumps and clumps of exposition is relatively new. Those things never seemed to bother readers in the past. But they DO bother readers now. In fact, I start to fall asleep when someone starts to drone on with the history of their made-up world. Exposition and background info CAN be fascinating if written right and if it concerns interesting information. But when it’s overly long, drawn-out, or not relevant to the story at hand it just puts me (and other readers) to sleep. The other gripe I’ve had is when an author tries to stuff backstory into dialogue and is REALLY obvious about it. I find it insulting not to mention jarring. Just me, though.
8. Just Because A Lot of “Stuff” is Happening, Doesn’t Mean the Plot is Going Anywhere: The last two books I read were paranormal romances and not good ones either. The authors ran their characters around a lot, had them change clothes often, go to different places, lots of kissing and… other stuff. But when you get right down to it, not much happened in either of those books. The plots were thin as mesh underpanties and not nearly as thrilling. So, lots of action does not a plot make.
9. If You Intend for Your Heroine to be “badass” make her do BADASS things and do them well: The portrayal of female badasses recently has really got my dander up. If they aren’t depicted as petite and gorgeous pixies with stick arms (who somehow manage to wield broadswords and take down monsters five times their strength and a hundred times their experience) they are mishandled so that the first time we see them trying to be badass they fail. In the first scene of a recent read, the heroine is sent to kill the hero. She fails pretty easily, even though she is supposed to be this UNSTOPPABLE and FEARED assassin. For the rest of the book she just seemed pathetic and useless, due in large part to that first fail. Word to the wise, always show your badass heroine winning her first badass encounter. Otherwise, I won’t believe for one second she is a badass. No matter how many times you tell me she’s a badass.
10. Digressions are Mind-numblingly tedious: Stick to your story. Don’t run off down a rabbit-hole where we learn the entire life story of the fourth-floor maid who never actually makes an impact in the story. Just stop and stick to your story. Please, I beg you!